Increasing Your Willpower

January 5th, 2016

Most of the resolutions that people make for the New Year tend to be focused on improving their health by increasing how much they exercise, and/or avoiding temptation in the form of unhealthy food or drinks. The strongest ally you are going to have in the fight to maintain these new habits, is willpower.

Willpower is our ability to resist temptation, get done what needs to be done, and our ability to set goals and be aware of our desires for the future.

A very unique thing about this ability is that it can be improved! It turns out that willpower is kind of like a muscle, in that the more you use it the better it can get, ostensibly improving your quality of life in the process.

A classic psychological study called the Standford marshmallow experiment tested the willpower of children in the form of their ability to delay gratification. The children were presented with a single marshmallow and told that they could eat the marshmallow now, but if they waited for 15 minutes they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Of the 600 children who participated in the study, only about one-third were able to resist temptation long enough to receive the bonus treat.

The results of the study were analyzed and found a strong correlation between a child’s ability to delay gratification and their age. It gets more interesting though.

A few follow up studies of the original participants were performed over the next 40 years and had some surprising results. As it turns out, the children who were able to effectively exercise willpower were rated as more competent as adolescents, fared better on the SAT, and demonstrated more activity in key areas in the brain when asked to resist temptations in middle age!

The best news of all of this is that you aren’t necessarily stuck with what you were born with when it comes to willpower. Newer research indicates that it can be improved in a few different ways. Here are a few ways to improve your willpower, and improve your chances of keeping that New Year’s resolution:

1. Meditate – Practicing meditation for even 5-10 minutes a day can improve your brains ability to focus, manage stress, recognize and control impulses, and improve self-awareness. Regular meditation has been shown not only to improve the function of the brain, but it changes the structure as well. Imaging studies of regular meditators revealed more gray matter in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is important for a great many things. Follow up studies found that changes of this type could be achieved in as little as 8 weeks.

For tips on how to practice, read an earlier blog post I wrote on the subject.

2. Exercise – I know that it seems a bit redundant to suggest that increasing your willpower to exercise can be achieved by exercising, but the fact is, it’s true. Regular physical activity unlocks the brains ability to rewire and strengthen connections in areas which allow us to exercise willpower. Most of the evidence supporting the use of physical exercise to initiate this process, which is dubbed neuroplasticity, suggests that cardiovascular exercise at sixty to eighty-five percent of your maximum heart rate for twenty to thirty minutes three to five times a week is sufficient.

3. Plan Ahead – Having a plan of action of what you are going to do when confronted with temptation will help you handle the situations more effectively when they present themselves. If you are trying to avoid junk food and sugary snacks at a social gathering, make sure to bring your own alternatives along. If you are working on exercising more frequently then make sure to schedule it into your day ahead of time to avoid making an excuse later on.

4. Allow Mistakes – As I had mentioned earlier, willpower is like a muscle, and like any other muscle, the more frequently you have to exercise it the more tired it can get. Try to keep this in mind when you slip up and focus on doing better next time. As your willpower improves, lapses in your ability to exercise it will become less frequent over time.

5. Start Small to Get Big – When picking a goal try to break the big goal down into smaller things that you can do in order to reach the ultimate objective. A lot of times when people fail at achieving a goal it is because they try to do too much too soon and end up getting exhausted and overwhelmed.

These are only a few ways in which you can go about increasing your willpower and achieving the goals you set for yourself in the New Year, but I hope you find them helpful. Best of luck in achieving all you set out to do this year.

I’ll be rooting for you.